The Speed of Life

The speed of life these days is growing faster and faster. But while we continually develop better tools to help us manage our time and whiz through our tasks more efficiently, the end result isn’t more time – it’s more work. How does that happen? Because, as futurist David Zach says, these tools don’t give us more time, they simply give us more choices. “The problem is, we don’t know how to choose.”
istock_000006191773xsmall.jpgSo, instead of enjoying the time freed up by using a word processor and copier to make a classroom’s worth of handouts (instead of typing them up three at a time using a typewriter and carbon paper), we simply use that time to do more work. And since each step of our working day has several “time-saving tools” assigned to it, the end result is that we wind up shoehorning tasks into every last second of the day.

Whereas before we might take a breather on the porch during a summer day while the bread baked in the stifling kitchen, today we simply turn on the bread machine and go on to the next chore in our air-conditioned houses. Instead of sitting and talking while dinner cooks in the oven, we zap a meal in the microwave and are back to our desks in just a few minutes.

In order to get free of this tyranny of the tools, it’s important to step back and take a look at what you’re doing, why you’re doing it and how important it is to you.

<b>What am I doing?</b>

For the next week or so, keep track of everything you do during the day. The easiest way to do this is to simply stop after task, or at set intervals, and jot down a few notes about what you’ve been doing and how long it took on a workday calendar that’s divided up into quarter or half-hour increments.

<b>Why am I doing this?</b>

After a week, take a look at what you’re doing and ask yourself why you’re doing each task. Is it vital to your work, or simply something to do? See if there are tasks that are simply busywork (such as obsessively checking email), or tasks that could be consolidated (making calls throughout the day, instead of at a set time). Pay special attention to tasks that you do in order to “look good” or that you do because they make you feel important or stroke your ego, but don’t actually provide value or are a productive use of your time (going to meetings simply to be seen, even if you don’t have anything valuable to offer or share, for example).

<b>How important is this task?</b>

You’d be surprised how unimportant most tasks are. People routinely respond to emails that don’t require a response, attend meetings to which they have nothing to contribute, spend time chatting with coworkers and otherwise fill their day with meaningless activities. You could probably drop or delegate a significant portion of the tasks you do, combine and consolidate many of the rest and take half the day off… and no one would be the wiser.

In fact, you might actually get more done. According to the <i>New York Times</i>, people today work for only an average of, “11 minutes on any given project before being interrupted and whisked off to do something else. What’s more, each 11-minute project was itself fragmented into even shorter three-minute tasks, like answering e-mail messages, reading a Web page or working on a spreadsheet. And each time a worker was distracted from a task, it would take, on average, 25 minutes to return to that task.”

The key to slowing down the speed of life, however, rests on a principle far more important than simply streamlining and efficiently organizing your time. Actually, if you stop there, you’ll probably end up worse off than you were before, because you’ll simply fill up your newly-discovered free time with more work.

No, the key is to realize that getting and staying hyper-busy is almost always an ego trip – the busy bee looks and feels important and powerful, whereas the leisurely (but highly productive) worker looks like a lazy slacker. Plus there’s an element of fear– fear that if you slow down, take a breath and tune out for a bit, everything will have gone off without you while you were away.

However, as long as you maintain these attitudes, your life will be an endless, relentless race against the sweeping second hand. The only way to get off that crazy machine is to stop, recognize where your busy-ness is merely ego and fear, and commit to using the time you free up to actually relax and take some time to enjoy the life you worked so hard to create. After all, it’d be a shame to race your way through life simply for the right to claim you got to the other end first.

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